If government by consensus is “the American way” – and it is – why is there so little of it today?
There are two main reasons:
The first is ideology, a political disease inherited from the last century. Ideology is a man-made worldview within which all questions are answered up front. It demands total assent and obedience. In the ideological universe any doubt, question or dissent is at best a weakness to be eliminated, at worst a crime to be punished. The unquestioning faith and total obedience ideology demands are the opposite of free individual thought.
The second reason is excessive partisanship. A party is a power structure on the axis between total individual independence and complete control. Parties which encourage questions and novel ideas perpetually renew themselves, but also risk anarchy and fragmentation. Those seeking only power and its rewards become top-down dictatorships where members are essentially forbidden to think for themselves.
When partisanship and ideology blend together consensus disappears: both ideology and the desire for absolute power drive out any possibility of free agreement between individual persons. Politics then becomes total war, with complete defeat of the opponent as the only acceptable outcome.
Our current political situation is not far from this extreme; hence continuous gridlock, unending personal attacks and refusal to consider any policy but one’s own. Whereas the people have moved on into the new century, our established parties are still locked into the old struggles between socialism and capitalism, conservatives and liberals, believers and atheists, and so on. In such a political world consensus is impossible and the nation is left adrift.
Can our traditional, consensus-based approach be restored?
That approach does not seek a utopia, but the satisfaction of real legitimate interests. It is not defined by an ideal state, but by an attainable goal, which can be reached through implementation of a specific policy. Instead of nebulous concepts such as “small government” or “social equality” it will have measurable goals.
Possibly the best example of such an approach were the hugely successful Republican platforms of 1854-1860. The new party aimed at making the U.S. into an industrial power, and for that purpose proposed:
– To finance and build a trans-continental railroad
– To create a single, common and stable currency – the “greenback”
– A tariff on imports to support American industries
– To provide mass technical education – the “A&M” land-grant colleges
– Give free land to settlers in the Territories – Homestead Act
All the above were concrete, measurable goals. By 1865 the necessary legislation was on the books and the United States went on to become the world’s greatest economic power and the most inventive nation in modern history.
Similarly our WWII build-up translated “victory” into quantities of munitions produced, miles of pipeline laid down, numbers of ships, planes and tanks built. These were goals understood and desired by all, and to the achievement of which every citizen could contribute.
The parties that will rule America in the near future will be those which will translate the aspirations of the citizens into similarly achievable goals in term of jobs, personal income, taxes, affordable services and global position. This will not be done by promoting some social or political concept with an “ism” at the end. It will be done by defining the “what’s”, “how’s” and “when’s” in terms clear enough for politicians to be held accountable.
Today’s politics appeal to possibly 20% of the electorate, split between the radical wings of both parties.
A consensus-based approach would bring in the 80% that now stands in the middle and release their capacity for initiative, innovation and dedicated effort.
It is a prize worth aiming at.